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Do spiders count?

Portia africana, a jumping spider from Kenya. Image: Fiona Cross

Dr Fiona Cross, University of Canterbury, will investigate what numbers mean to jumping spiders, to see if they can be counted on to help researchers better understand numerical cognition in animals


Published on 3 Whiringa-ā-rangi November 2021 


Can animals sense numbers? Biologists have investigated this question by studying vertebrates like apes, birds, and fish, and invertebrates like bees. We know that animals do sense the number of things when they are differentiating individual objects, and this ability to quantify is independent from mathematical notation and verbal language. Do these discoveries hold true for spiders?

Dr Fiona Cross in the field

Dr Fiona Cross. Image: supplied

With this Marsden Fund Standard grant, arachnologist Dr Fiona Cross and her team will examine this question in jumping spiders, which have a unique set of eyes they use to target other spiders as preferred prey. This makes them an exceptional case to study numerical cognition in animals. The proposed research brings together a custom virtual reality setup and eye-tracking equipment to visualise in real time how jumping spiders can differentiate visual objects or cues. Visual data will be combined with theories in psychology to build a complete picture of how the spiders interpret mathematic-like relations without a formalised mathematical system.

This research will provide a deeper understanding of animal cognition, as well as the origin of mathematics. It may even bring us closer to being able to answer philosophical questions like: is mathematics only a human descriptor of the physical world, or is it innate to all life? The custom-made virtual reality setup also pushes the boundaries of what is experimentally possible in the virtual space, highlighting the gains that can be made when completely different disciplines collide.